Sunset Park

Those who say ‘wait:’ What Industry City’s opponents want

April 23, 2019 Scott Enman
Critics of Industry City's rezoning say it could dramatically reshape Sunset Park, exacerbating displacement and gentrification in the largely immigrant low-income neighborhood. Photo by Paul Frangipane

When Sunset Park’s Industry City put forward an ambitious plan to rezone its 35-acre office, retail and light-manufacturing complex, opponents said not so fast.

Industry City backers want the city to grant zoning changes so it can build two hotels, academic space and large retail stores as part of a 10-year, $1 billion redevelopment that would increase its size from roughly 5.3 to 6.5 million square feet.

The back-and-forth between the plan’s supporters and its opponents has become a flashpoint in a bigger discussion about displacement, gentrification and the proper utilization of manufacturing space — as well as about the entire land use process citywide.

We spoke to those who said “wait.” Here’s what they want:

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The rezoning could dramatically reshape Sunset Park, exacerbating displacement and gentrification in the largely immigrant low-income neighborhood, the critics say. Any changes to the Brooklyn waterfront should be geared toward adapting to climate change, protecting blue-collar jobs and preserving the working-class character of the area.

Sunset Park. Photo by Paul Frangipane
Sunset Park. Photo by Paul Frangipane

They want a better process

Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, who represents Sunset Park, called for the public review process for the rezoning to be temporarily halted to allow for more community input, saying the current methods in place are insufficient. When Industry City agreed to only delay it for two weeks, Menchaca said “he had to force their hand a bit.”

Menchaca says there are many “open-ended questions” that need to be answered before the rezoning can be considered. Those questions include: 1. Will the rezoning displace local residents? 2. Will the rezoning actually provide jobs for local residents? 3. Will the rezoning improve our ability to tackle the impending effects of climate change? 4. Can Industry City extend the economic growth they have already achieved without the rezoning?

“These are urgent questions, because over the years we have heard developers tout projects as guaranteed job creators and economic growth engines, only to watch them displace residents, gentrify neighborhoods and raise rents,” Menchaca told the Brooklyn Eagle.

“Unfortunately, ULURP has not proven to be an effective means for addressing these concerns, partly because it works like a negotiation, rather than a fact-finding mission, and partly because the Environmental Review is not well equipped for analyzing displacement.”

Cesar Zuniga, chairperson of Community Board 7, said he explicitly told the leaders of Industry City that he needed more community input, something that was not apparent in other large developments across the city.

“I want a process. That’s what the community deserves. What Industry City is doing and what developers want to do isn’t happening in a vacuum. It’s part of a much bigger context,” Zuniga said, citing Hudson Yards and Atlantic Terminal as other projects part of a trend.

“What’s consistent across all of them is that the community has not been the leading voice in leading the way to ease and manage the transition that inevitably comes with rezoning a development.”

A public scoping meeting was held in October 2017, when many residents voiced concerns over the rezoning. Tarry Hum — head of the Department of Urban Studies at Queens College, CUNY and author of “Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood: Brooklyn’s Sunset Park” — says many of the issues raised that day have not been incorporated into the current rezoning plan.

“The city and Industry City had a chance to really hear what community concerns were [at the scoping meeting]” said Hum, who grew up in the neighborhood and is an outspoken critic of Industry City. “My concern is what happened to all of that material? What happened to all those testimonies? How is that going to be reflected in what Industry City ultimately proposes?

“It hasn’t changed what they’re proposing, so I’m wondering in terms of a city planning process, what happens to the concerns that were raised by community stakeholders and people who showed up to testify?”

CB7 also held a series of town halls to inform the public about the rezoning process.

A 197-A plan was created and approved in 2011 for Sunset Park. A 197-A is a formal way to develop a community-based plan, which allows neighborhood organizations to sponsor plans for the development, growth and improvement of the city.

Industry City. Photo by Paul Frangipane
Industry City. Photo by Paul Frangipane

They want more green manufacturing

Community groups and academics have a different vision for the waterfront than that of Industry City’s leaders — one that is rooted in green manufacturing, sustainability and climate resiliency.

“It would be unfortunate if we ended up being a community that looks like Chelsea, Williamsburg and DUMBO,” Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of the nonprofit UPROSE, told the Eagle. “If we were to lose an opportunity to build for climate adaptation, mitigation and resiliency, it would be a real move back to a time when developers were thinking in a very conventional way.”

And with the possibility of extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy, advocates say now is the time to make Sunset Park’s waterfront more resilient.

“Right now, you’ve got a lot of luxury housing going up on Fourth Avenue,” Yeampierre said. “You’ve got an infrastructure that is old and getting older, a subway system that was unable to withstand Superstorm Sandy, and to not have an industrial sector that is building for that, that is incorporating renewable energy, that is building for offshore wind.

“To not have an industrial sector that does that and at the same time to disrupt our community by basically threatening its social cohesion is irresponsible and immoral.”

One of the entrances to Industry City. Photo by Paul Frangipane.
One of the entrances to Industry City. Photo by Paul Frangipane.

Ron Shiffman, a city planner, architect, professor, author and co-founder of the Pratt Center for Community Development, says Sunset Park should be at the forefront of preparing for climate change and sea level rise. He also said that, as one of the last remaining industrial zones in the city, the area should be building infrastructure for an adaptive and mitigating society and retaining blue collar jobs.

“The rezoning is really a major gentrification thrust as opposed to looking at this and saying how do we maintain and expand the manufacturing jobs that are now there,” Shiffman told the Eagle. “How do we make sure we have the training and capacity building of local residents so they can take the new kinds of jobs that are necessary to protect our ecosystem and our environment and our waterfront in 2040?

“We need to develop an eco-industrial strategy on how they can really look and learn from folks in Western Europe that are beginning to adapt their environments to it, how they can create a port and a waterfront that would minimize its polluting efforts and maximize its output of products to adapt and mitigate climate change.”

For Menchaca, he said that manufacturing positions not only fit the fabric of the neighborhood, but they also provide job security for his constituents. He told the Eagle that he would work to ensure that the rezoning would not erode the protections for current and future manufacturing workers in New York City.

“For years, advocates and communities have argued for the need to preserve manufacturing and industrial zones, recognizing them as a pathway to economic security for low-skill or immigrant workers,” Menchaca said. “The city, too, has recognized the need to protect manufacturing areas from encroaching uses by designating Industrial Business Zones around the city — including Sunset Park.

“If Industry City’s rezoning were to happen, it would represent a massive rezoning of one of these Industrial Business Zones. Industry wants its neighbors to rezone its property to build hotels, big box retail and a host of other amenities. These are not obviously industrial or manufacturing uses.”

Street scenes from Sunset Park. Photo by Paul Frangipane
Street scenes from Sunset Park. Photo by Paul Frangipane

They want to know about displacement

Many residents and activists feel as though Industry City’s rezoning would transform the neighborhood negatively, in a similar fashion to how North Brooklyn has changed in recent years.

And while the source of the displacement differs — residential being the main cause in North Brooklyn — there are similarities for how it will affect longtime residents.

“It feels like we’re on the precipice, just like the folks in Williamsburg and Greenpoint felt like its rezoning really marked a moment where the neighborhood that they once knew no longer exists,” Hum said. “UPROSE and other groups, what they’re fundamentally fighting for is just the right to stay.

“For all those people who are not property owners, you’re at risk. You’re at risk of not being able to afford to stay in that neighborhood anymore. Even if you’re welcomed, you won’t be able to afford it and you certainly won’t be able to afford it working at the food hall in Industry City.”

The destination retail, programming and culture Industry City is trying to curate is geared toward a certain demographic, according to Hum, who said it is not in line with Sunset Park’s current demographic — one that will not buy $18 coffees and avocado toast.

Sunset Park is one of the most impoverished areas of the city, especially among Latino and Asians, according to Hum, who said in addition to poverty rates in excess of 30 percent, the neighborhood has the highest number of adults without a high school diploma.

“Industry City has a huge footprint along the waterfront and whatever they do has repercussions for the surrounding area,” Hum said. “That’s also clear because a lot of the realtors, especially along the Brownstone Belt for Sunset Park, are certainly marketing its proximity to Industry City as one of the selling points for the residential properties.”

“There’s no question that what Industry City is doing in terms of creating a hype and creating a rebranding is definitely affecting the private real estate market,” she added.

For housing advocates across the city, Williamsburg stands as a warning of a rezoning gone amiss. By failing to take into account the full impact of new development on an area, officials unintentionally accelerated the rate of displacement among minority residents, ultimately leading to racial segregation.

A Pratt study also found that the City Environmental Quality Review, which is the city’s sole means to formally measure displacement risk, minimized vulnerability, and therefore led to misleading findings.

Industry City. Photo by Paul Frangipane
Industry City. Photo by Paul Frangipane

They want reliable jobs

The rezoning would create an additional 15,000 on-site jobs through the building of hotels, retail space and academic facilities. While that figure certainly looks good on paper, Sunset Park residents say they want a closer look at the types of positions being created.

“We don’t know what kinds of jobs those are,” Yeampierre said. “We don’t know if those are jobs that are being imported from other businesses. We don’t know how many require a level of skills that may not exist in this community.

“They are talking about these jobs, but it doesn’t address the fact that even if people are able to get the jobs, it means that they can’t afford to live in this community anymore.”

The proposed 15,000 jobs will supplement several thousand jobs that have already been created by the complex. Andrew Kimball, CEO of Industry City, declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this article, but a public relations firm representing the complex did provide a statement.

“In the past five years, Industry City has generated tremendous economic activity, including investing more than $400 million in private funds to improve the complex, quadrupling the number of on-site jobs from 1,900 to more than 7,500 and growing the number of businesses from 150 to more than 500,” the statement reads.

“We fully appreciate the desire to continue that meaningful economic growth while ensuring it aligns with the broader needs of the entire community.”

The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce echoed Industry City’s sentiment, telling the Eagle that “policy makers should support these continued efforts to create thousands of additional jobs in our communities and promote thoughtful and inclusive economic growth.”

But Menchaca said that Industry City’s positive contributions to the community in the past do not necessarily mean they should be able to expand for the future.

“No one denies that Industry City has done a phenomenal job so far attracting businesses and creating jobs,” Menchaca said. “What doesn’t follow from that fact is that we should rezone their property. We are not yet convinced that Industry City cannot continue to grow jobs without a rezoning.”

“However, there are concerns that if they did rezone, it would exacerbate displacement and gentrification. It would be irresponsible of me as an elected official charged with protecting the livelihoods of my constituents to rezone without investigating fully whether a rezoning would cause these things. It comes back to equity.”

A vendor in Sunset Park. Photo by Paul Frangipane
A vendor in Sunset Park. Photo by Paul Frangipane

They want community input

Regardless of what happens with the Industry City rezoning, one thing that most agree on is the need for community involvement.

“We have to be thinking about entering into a dialogue with the groups that are feeling the pain of gentrification, feeling the scourge of environmental pollution and begin to work with them so they can look at the ideas beyond the present and help them grow as a community and at the same time help us all learn about how we do this properly,” Shiffman said.

“There’s a lot to come out of really planning and debating a development and not allowing everything to be driven by a developer whose principal purpose is to get short-term returns for their investors,” he added.

Asked what the best case scenario for Sunset Park would look like, Menchaca advocated for patience, saying all residents need to engage in the process, communicate their needs and the outcome needs to reflect those opinions.

“In terms of the scenario for the rezoning, that remains to be seen,” he said. “Right now, we know Industry City’s presence in Sunset Park has already contributed to making the neighborhood less affordable. If the rezoning hyper charges these trends, the best-case scenario may be no rezoning.

“However, if it turns out that the rezoning, or some version of it, would actually benefit Sunset Park by keeping families in their homes and winning them higher paying jobs, then that would be best case.”

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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